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Cleveland journalists discuss experiences reporting on Ariel Castro in SPJ panel

By Timothy Simko

A panel was held on April 24 by the Society of Professional Journalists to discuss the escape of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight from the home of Ariel Castro after a decade of captivity.

The panelists were Leila Atassi, a reporter for Northeast Ohio Media Group, John Kosich, a reporter for WEWS-TV, and Tom Moore, news anchor for Newsradio WTAM 1100.

The event was co-sponsored by the Cleveland Pro Chapter of SPJ, the CSU Student Chapter of SPJ, and the Mid-Michigan Chapter of SPJ.  Mid-Michigan participated via video hookup.

With the first anniversary of the discovery of the three kidnapped women from Castro’s house in a Tremont neighborhood in Cleveland coming up on May 6, the SPJ chapters held the panel to discuss the night the story first broke, as well as ethical matters in reporting the story.

The panel was interactive with open discussion between the audience and the panelists, with Cleveland State journalism students and journalists from Cleveland and Lansing, Michigan present.

The discussion started with the panelists introducing themselves. Afterward, they immediately began discussing what it was like the night the story broke.

“I was there and our biggest question was ‘What the heck is going on?’,” said Moore.

Someone was sent over that night because he felt that they had to know the story very well as it became news media around the world.

Atassi was covering a Cleveland City Council meeting when the news broke. She said that everyone that was familiar with Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry was amazed. They were doing digital reporting on the breaking news, being dispatched to the scene and tweeting and calling in the information as it came in.
Everyone in the Cleveland area was familiar with Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, but according to Atassi, everyone was wondering who Michelle Knight was.

Atassi had to look up the missing person report, and through the report was able to track down Knight’s grandmother. She found out through Knight’s grandmother that Knight’s mother was living in Florida. Atassi worked to put a profile together as they had little to no information about Michelle Knight.

“I never experienced anything like this,” she said. “It was unforgettable.”

Knight had a fractured family full of strained relationships and her mother walked away from her when she went missing, according to Atassi.

Kosich explained his reaction when the news broke about the three women being found.

“To us at that time it was beyond belief that this could be the real Amanda Berry,” he said.

Over the years vigils would be held and reporters would get false hope through tips and clues that didn’t lead anywhere. Kosich explained how reporters had become close to the families over the years and how each year at the vigils people would just go up to the families and give them a hug.

Kosich went to the scene on Seymour Avenue and interviewed the man who helped rescue the three girls, Charles Ramsey — a moment that he said pulled him in and made viral history.

When asked what his reaction was when he saw the girls faces, Charles Ramsey said, “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”

The interview quickly went viral, being broadcast worldwide and even being made into an autotuned song on YouTube, “Dead Giveaway”.

Ramsey’s quote when he rescued the girls was so significant that it garnered worldwide traction. Kosich said that what made it significant was that it was all live and all there.

Kosich explained how nothing in his career has ever come close to the rescue of Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry, and Michelle Knight turning out to be true.

“Anything could’ve happened with this story,” said Moore.
There were posters with the age progression pictures all around Cleveland, but Moore never expected them to show up. He feels it was the most amazing story any of them could’ve ever done and that it was the biggest story he’s ever dealt with.

It was astonishing to Kosich that the neighborhood that they disappeared from was where they were found.

Atassi brought up the ethical matters for how to address the story, asking “how much does the public need to know.” There were so many terrible details to the story and there was constant debate over what to release to the public. They wanted to be the first to report, but also wanted to try to step back on the details.

Reporters that weren’t local had a “scorched earth approach,” according to Kosich, and were not afraid of burning bridges because they weren’t staying there. However, over the years the local reporters had become good friends with the families of DeJesus and Berry and didn’t want to burn their bridges. The local news media ultimately decided to give the families peace.

When the news broke, the girls played a huge role, giving just enough information but not too much, according to Kosich.

“Feed us a little bit and you can keep us at bay,” said Kosich.

While the girls were being quiet and it was difficult to obtain information from them, Atassi said she was able to work many angles with Ariel Castro, stating anything was “fair game” with him.

Kosich explained a major ethical dilemma that came up when the story broke. Channel 5 did a story on the criminal past of Charles Ramsey. This led to Facebook backlash and shortly after Channel 5 issued an apology.

Another dilemma explained by Atassi was a man named Angel Cordero claiming to be the true hero. The reason why he wasn’t as prevalent in the news media is because he spoke little to no English. Because Cordero was Hispanic and Ramsey was African-American it also increased racial tensions and became a “he said, she said” debate.

It wasn’t until the sentencing of Castro that Amanda Berry backed the story given by Ramsey, according to Moore.

Kosich, who was the first person to interview Ramsey after the rescue, said that Ramsey had a certain way of saying things and that there are no unspoken thoughts.

Ramsey is releasing a book accounting his life before, during and after the rescue, titled “Dead Giveaway,” which will be officially published on May 1, just a few days before the one year anniversary of what was dubbed as the “Miracle in Cleveland.”

Moore explained he was not an expert and had never been to Seymour Avenue, but that he knew the characters. In order to become an expert on the story, he became a “news junkie.”

Every news outlet began covering the story through social media sites such as Twitter, according to Atassi. It was not a traditional news story and they were giving live updates and monitoring other news media.

She also explained there was an ethical dilemma with social media rumors. There were rumors that people made reports on Seymour Avenue but that the police never followed up on the reports. She scanned police reports from every crime ever reported on that street to debunk the rumors.

This case has helped Cleveland as there are now more missing person features, according to Moore. He explained that there are more missing people than anyone realizes and many of them are not reported missing.

A dilemma in reporting was explained by Atassi when the police claimed Michelle Knight was 19 when she was kidnapped but her mother claimed she was 21. She wasn’t sure who to trust, and decided to trust the mother. It turned out that the police were correct. Atassi felt that Knight’s family was not motivated.
The only photo reporters had of her for the longest time was a grainy thumbnail picture from her high school yearbook, according to Moore.

Atassi said she drove to the country to Knight’s cousin’s house to find a photograph of her.

DeJesus’ family was the opposite, constantly keeping Gina in everyone’s minds, according to Kosich. Although many thought that DeJesus was dead, her parents swore that she was a victim of human trafficking.

Moore confirmed this, saying that the families made them well known.

The panel explained how they tried to respect the girls’ privacy while also gathering information. News channels gathered sound bytes from Knight’s appearance on the Dr. Phil show and when Berry appeared at Roverfest last year, it was shocking and the public sighting became a news story.

The panel unanimously agreed that there was a feeling of relief when Castro was convicted.

Although there was a lot of evidence, they had to treat the story carefully until the conviction.

Moore brought up the fact that Castro’s two brothers were arrested also when the story first broke out, and although it seemed like they were guilty, it turned out they didn’t know about the girls.
Atassi explained how she had to be careful in her reporting because her tone will purvey her beliefs.

The panel then explained how this story breaking changed them.
“I look at things differently now,” said Kosich.

“If the families had not kept Amanda and Gina in our minds for 10 years, the story would’ve developed differently,” said Moore. “Jaws dropped when they were found.”

The only time Castro let the girls watch TV was to watch the vigils, which was Castro’s way of saying “They’re never going to find you,” according to Kosich.

“This was the only story we were covering with full blown reporting,” said Moore.